review: Isla Quartet

The Isla Quartet
Woodend Barn
Sunday, 17 November 2013

Alan Cooper writes...
Sunday afternoon’s generous recital given by the Isla String Quartet in Woodend Barn was a repeat of a performance given the previous evening before a capacity audience in Gartly Community Hall known locally as The Tin Hut. The final item in the programme was the first complete performance of String Quartet No.3 by Ronald Center. Although born in Aberdeen where he studied music under Willan Swainson, Center moved to Huntly where he was Music Master at the prestigious Gordon Schools before retiring from school teaching in order to devote his time to composition and private teaching. Center composed a fairly broad range of music but never achieved recognition in his lifetime and rarely heard his own music performed. It was thanks to music centeral, a group of local people from Huntly and beyond, formed to promote music in the Huntly area - and thanks also to Deveron Arts who in 2008 organised a weekend celebration of the life and works of Ronald Center that his music began to receive recognition. That year, the Isla Quartet gave the first performance of Center’s String Quartet No.2. One of the prime movers in the enterprise was the composer David Ward whose own String Quartet No.7 opened the present programme. Ward is also a generous supporter of today’s young composers so the programme included nine short pieces, two for string duo and seven for quartet - several of these composed by pupils of the Gordon Schools. This is surely proof that a composer should never despair of getting a hearing for as Gustav Mahler is reported as saying, “My time will come!”

David Ward’s String Quartet No.7 commissioned by Music Centeral with support from Creative Scotland was a superbly well-crafted work. It opened with a rhythmically powerful theme on viola including a broad leap and precipitous descent. This material was developed and pervaded the entire continuous movement. Changes in tempo were crucial and were also an important part of the structure of the music. The merest touches of Scots rhythm and melody were handled with good humour and the piece worked towards a precipitous and totally convincing conclusion where the slowing of the music marked an emphatic conclusion – a splendid essay in musical structure.

Mendelssohn was only eighteen years old when he composed his first string quartet although for some reason it is called String Quartet No.2. A beautifully harmonised song-like opening led after a trill and an emphatic chord into the faster music that we often associate with this composer. The second movement boasted marvellous fugal textures recalling Bach although this was actually inspired not by that composer but by Beethoven. No wonder though that Mendelssohn later in his career came to champion the music of Bach. The third movement, marked Intermezzo, had intimations of the minuet and trio movements of earlier quartets with a busy trio section which partly re-emerged to close the movement. The finale had a stormy opening with splendidly fiery playing from the Isla Quartet cellist. The Presto led into another Adagio with hymn-like harmonies and there was impassioned playing towards the end from the first violin.

After the interval, the Quartet performed nine short pieces by the previously mentioned young composers. Did they have a generous measure of assistance from brilliant and talented teachers? If not then Huntly would seem to have spawned a whole nest of quite astonishing young musical prodigies because every single one of these pieces showed an amazing level of mature accomplishment.  All right, the first piece, a duo for violin and cello entitled Instead of the Today Programme was by the Isla Quartet’s viola player Rachel Stott. It had a muscular violin melody supported by guitar-like cello pizzicato. Another duo, played by the second violin and viola was Song for Violin-Viola by James East. The melody did actually have an eastern flavour. Was this a musical pun on the composer’s name?

All the other pieces were for full quartet. Spring in Strathbogie by Esther Smith had a Scottish flavour and was skilfully scored. Rebecca Henderson’s School Song Arrangement had a less than inspiring title but was actually a fascinating piece with nicely varied rhythmic accompaniment at the start then opening out into music that showed mature understanding of the quartet language. Iona Fyfe’s War and Piece had nice contrasts of slow and fast music and a jaunty tune with well composed variations. A Trio of Cities by Jessica Brook had three well contrasted sections and loads of imaginative scoring. Lewis Holliday was present at the concert to hear a fine performance of his Petrichor Quartet which had a sustained pedal note on cello before it introduced fine contrapuntal writing. Innes White is clearly on a roll with quartet composition because he called his piece String Quartet No.1. It was rhythmically imaginative with just a touch of minimalism. Let’s call it post-minimalist. The final piece was by Annie Lennox – is it a coincidence of names or was it really her? Anyway the piece had fabulous rhythmic interest and just a hint of popular if not pop music. Could this be a film composer in the making?

I wonder what Ronald Center would think of the music produced by pupils of the school where he once taught. I’m afraid he would be a bit jealous since there was no Isla Quartet around to play his music when he was alive. Never mind! They were about to play it now.

Center’s music was full of colourful atmospheric writing but perhaps he needed to take a leaf out of David Ward’s book and to take some of his ideas and work them through to the end. His Quartet No.3 was rather like Tapas with lots of fine things but not really amounting to a full satisfying meal.

I’m not sure what Center would have thought of the idea of having local poets respond to his music by penning words that his music conjured up in the minds of the writers. There were seven movements in Center’s String Quartet No.3 and before each of these Anna Lavigne read out the words of poets Maureen Ross and Brian Nisbet inspired by the music.

The opening of the quartet had imitative writing for the two violins over pizzicato cello and viola suggesting sea swells and the cries of gulls to the poet. Busy fugal textures and a lullaby-like section with a warm ending had suggested colours of water and granite, light against dark in the second movement. A rather bleak sounding short third movement had suggested places left empty a longing to have one’s hand held and then … darkness.

Rain on pebbles, new buds shivering in the cold wind was what was suggested by pizzicato contrasted with bowed playing by the quartet in the fourth movement. Skeletal playing, stormy wild outburst and more pizzicato had suggested “a gey dreich day” – oh dear!

A viola melody against little dabs of colour on the other instruments had suggested waiting for a chance to come out to play across years and events that Center could not have known about. Finally the seventh movement with energetic rhythmic stabs and the cello tolling a kind of knell brought forth the words: “To know that this is the end. The last I will ever write. Is it any good? Will I hear it played?

It seems that in the end Center had given up hope of ever hearing a performance of his own music. He was not the only composer to have to face that. Many really famous composers never got to hear their own music although so much of it is played all the time now – and how wonderful that the young composers from Huntly got the chance to hear their music. Three cheers for music centeral, Deveron Arts and of course not forgetting sound.
© Alan Cooper 2013